UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
A Polaroid stood upright against the leg of the nightstand, impossibly straight, as though it were a pillar in a house of cards. Another appeared in the kitchen in the girl’s green mug, which, luckily, was not full.
Photographs hid inside the girl’s desk. They attached themselves to the outside of her backpack; she tore them away nervously for fear of being seen.
Growing up, the girl thought that all children went through life accompanied by photographs. When she was nearly ten years old, she listened to her parents debate who had taken the first infamous photo. She didn’t understand how they could fail to understand. That was when she concluded that, whether or not the photos were a gift, they were a fact to be kept private.
Photos would often appear when the girl looked at something and thought, I want to remember this moment always. But not always—the photos came when they did. Generally, the girl’s communion with the Polaroids took place when she was in a daze, idly chewing the inside of her cheek.
She was generally a quiet girl, but she developed an enemy in high school. On one occasion, a cigarette was found in the girls’ bathroom. The whole staff searched for the perpetrator, and the girl wanted nothing more than to implicate her enemy in return for all of the verbal abuse. The girl bit her cheek and imagined the photograph she desired. She waited for her eyes to glaze over, for the mental click, but no matter how hard she tried—no matter that the enemy was probably the true culprit, anyway—the Polaroids took no heed.
The enemy continued to ridicule the girl at school, but a young man began to defend her after he found a Polaroid. Picking it up from the floor near the girl’s locker, he stared at it for a long minute before placing it in his own notebook. An aspiring photographer himself, he loved its understated eloquence: mannequins wearing pearls, a thrift shop disco ball. For weeks he continued to defend the girl against her enemy, as he watched and waited to confirm that the photo was really hers. The day of confirmation came when he noticed the girl slip a photograph from her lunch bag into her pocket.
More and more Polaroids began to crop up around school. The young man made it a point to talk to the girl every day, and she reciprocated. When her parents left town for a weekend, they seized the opportunity to be alone. They explored everything about each other through their hands. In the amber haze of skin and hair and fingertips, the girl did not notice the telltale click.
A photo of the young man, blurry with movement, materialized in her mother’s dresser drawer. When accused of showing off her disobedience, the girl boiled with indignation at her own subconscious. As though they were in a fight, the photos refused to surface for a week.
Once everything cooled down again, the young man invited the girl to attend the carnival. A photograph of them flying down the rollercoaster (her hair expanded like an amber parachute, his face turned to admire it, as though he knew himself to be posing for posterity) appeared in the girl’s purse, and she gave it to him. He was pleased.
Strolling past the candied apples and corn on the cob, she didn’t realize at first that he was walking with direction. He led her to a booth run by scouts for a national art contest. When he begged her to submit the photograph, she refused. The young man considered the photo she gave him to be his property and, when she wasn’t looking, submitted it anyway.
It won. But when the committee tried to publish it in their magazine, nothing appeared but a gray square. The contest managers nervously concluded that the girl must have had some special reproduction-proof technology to protect her copyright. The committee members phoned the young man; he confessed to them and to her.
Although the girl was angry, she was also secretly pleased. She played along with the copyright excuse. She cited artistic integrity as her reason for having no backup negatives. After word got out that her photos couldn’t be replicated, the same magazine did a feature on her. The article catapulted her into the public view, and she was offered her first gallery exhibit.
Perhaps because there were no definitive copies, no one noticed that the snapshots changed over time. Some of the rich art collectors who owned them occasionally noted slight differences from when the photographs were purchased, but the snapshots changed too gradually to be sure. After enough time, one had to swallow his doubts and convince himself that of course a certain figure had always been there, and that while the color might have faded a little, the composition of the shot was still mostly the same. People fooled themselves out of believing that figures in their photos had aged or disappeared, or that the new faces hadn’t been there from the start. It is amazing how little people trust their own memories.
The girl was oblivious at first. She remembered the events behind every photo exactly as they appeared in hard copy. Only when the young man pulled up a chair and placed a photo on her lap did she begin to understand. The photo he had taken at the carnival showed the two of them alongside two other friends. The colors were less vivid, more mundane. The girl’s Polaroid made no mention of the classmates. All the same, she smiled and handed it right back. She didn’t know what she would do if the young man noticed.
After the first exhibition, she was offered a contract for a traveling showcase and a lecture series. The first time that she stood up on a podium, she nearly laughed at telling others how to take a photograph. By the fourth time, she started to forget that she had never actually taken a photograph herself.
The young man always solicited her opinion on photography, but her preference was to talk about life, music, other things. All the same, she was flattered by the nervous way he spoke around her. He invited her to the opening of someone in his artists’ circle. His friends swarmed around her when she arrived. She was pretty, they said, prettier than you’d expect for the photographic voice of their time. The exhibition artist might have been jealous, but he waited to ask her questions all the same.
After graduation, the girl and the young man moved in together. They went for coffee with the artists’ circle every day, where the girl fielded questions and indulged in plenty of advice-giving. The group brooded over self-determination and discussed the ironies of modernization over their Colombian brew, black. She enjoyed this.
On the way back to the apartment, the two of them walked past graffitied warehouse facades. Inside, they continued to talk about life and oedipal complexes and the meaning of reincarnation. This developed into a routine, the two of them lying next to each other as they stared at the ceiling. There was nothing else to do, as the caffeine forbade midday sleep.
Throughout this era, the photos changed in style. They used to be a childhood remembered, with figures like sculptures telling a story to the marble halls of a museum. Over time, they became more visceral. The snapshots were no longer Victorian tableaus, but rather impressions that captured emotions. A favorite childhood doll’s red lips and strands of polyester hair began to blur in one of her snapshots. The more mature version of the photograph betrayed the carpet stain behind the plastic head and the place where the doll’s arm fell off. The image couldn’t explain her parents’ inability to buy a replacement—but there were echoes.
Collectors marveled at her versatility. The young man was even more obsessed with the girl’s critical acclaim than she. While he dedicated himself to perfecting his art—he lived, breathed, photography—the girl stopped monitoring her reviews very closely. She was jealous of the young man’s passion for his medium. At times she felt more like a broker.
One afternoon, as she gave in to the warm eddies of his breath against the nape of her neck, she heard a click. The snapshot was waiting behind the coffeemaker. She plucked it out and left it on the young man’s dresser.
He loved it. In the image, his head peeked out above the amber ocean of her hair as they lay together, though there was no way she could have gotten the angle by holding the camera herself. The young man did not remember a tripod. The girl considered telling a tale, but she had never told anyone her secret. She wanted someone to say that it was okay, that her gift was beautiful. The young man’s arms circled and squeezed her waist.
She told him about the mental snapshots. She told him about her accidental fame and her lack of reproduction-proof technology.
He accused her of being a fake. The photos were a gift that appeared of their own volition, he said. She had no right to take credit; her subconscious was simply splattering itself onto paper. The young man was hurt and also jealous. He said that what she did was like cheating.
The girl hated that he was more upset about her art than about her. She would have understood if he felt betrayed because she had not told him earlier, but that was not his complaint.
She apologized, but he did not accept it. She apologized twice, three times, and then did not apologize anymore. The young man moved out.
The last photo, a scene from their fight, taped itself to her mirror. It depicted the young man’s angry lips mid-yell. She ripped it off and filed it in an album. She went around town and squinted. She bit her cheek and waited for the shutter click inside her mind. It didn’t come. She kept trying, until the inside of her cheek began to bleed. The photos refused to appear.
Alone in the apartment, she dwelled. After a few weeks that passed in a haze, she finally heard a click again. By the espresso beans lay her first duplicate photo, the scene from the fight. Confused, she placed it in the album alongside the original.
More of them cropped up everywhere. The same photo, over and over, of the young man with a snarl, appeared all over the apartment. Three of them were on the sofa, five of them by the bathtub, and one of them stuffed into the air vent. The girl went through, one by one, filing them into albums. Only upon viewing the thirtieth copy did she realize that each was slightly different. In some, the young man’s mouth was a little more ajar, and in others his head was turned a slightly different direction.
They kept multiplying. Strewn all over the floors and countertops, the number increased every day. After two weeks, there was a flood of Polaroids two feet deep. The girl couldn’t bathe because Polaroids filled the shower. They burst out of cabinets and fell from the ceiling rafters. Sitting in bed, she was a lonely huddle amid the smell of quick-drying photographic ink.
Around this time, she began to have dreams: some were eerie, some were happy, and some were almost indistinguishable from reality. She awoke to find new duplicates at the top of the giant heap. The more she dreamt, the more photos surfaced. Dozing in and out, she could only half-differentiate the wildest of the dream photos from the others.
In an effort to stem the tide, she went to the store and bought a mechanical camera. She wanted to prove that she was a photographer as much as the young man was, to prove that she was more than a mere art broker. She tried to recapture the magic of her earlier instants, but the device was cold and metallic against her eye. She returned to sites where she had taken snapshots in the past, but the mechanical photos weren’t the same.
Faced with the camera, the Polaroids ceased. They relegated themselves to the corners of her vision, hiding in the pink caruncle of her eyes.
Her work with a camera was mediocre at best. Fewer and fewer visitors came to her shows, and the critics supported their boycott. She put aside the Polaroid and bought a fancy photographer’s camera with knobs and lenses and a thick instruction booklet that she read end to end. She became obsessed with proving that she could be a legitimate photographer if she tried.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. The critics demanded the Polaroids of old, but she refused, recalling her oft-cited artistic integrity. There was a problem, however: she was no longer new, exciting, or original.
The girl continued to take mediocre photographs of things like flowers and babies for many years. She saved only one copy of her last snapshot—the image of the young man’s last angry second of their relationship—in the bottom of a drawer that she never opened. As time passed, the expression of the man who looked out shifted from a scowl to a sad smile of understanding. She might have noticed this and understood the change in her own feelings, visible in the gradual softening of his face and the nostalgia that filled the small Polaroid square. But he had never called her, and she never looked at the photo again.
She hung the other Polaroids on the wall in neat little frames. They were miniature reminders of what was, and, if she so chose, the flood that could be unleashed again.
She died in her sleep many years later, at an age that was neither young nor old but perfectly respectable. As she slept on her last night, her will finally broke. One more Polaroid appeared on her nightstand. It was confused, blurry, and dark. A few minutes later, that photo, the gallery of frames, and every Polaroid purchased by every art collector, flashed suddenly into gray squares.
© 2004-2009 Underground Voices